The Sinister Clog-Makers of Bethmale


The Hansel and Gretel village of Portet-d'Aspet has probably the most sinuous high street in France. We wriggle through on our way to Bethmale, home of the splendid legend of the spiky-toed clogs. 
When the Saracens invaded the south of France and the Pyrénées in the 9th century, during their occupation of the village of Bethmale the son of the invaders' chief fell in love with a local maiden named Esclarlys, which means 'luminous white lily'. Despite being engaged to a local boy named Danert, the girl welcomed the attentions of her new suitor. The young men of the village took to the mountains plotting revenge on the invaders. But while they fashioned weapons, Darnert carved clogs with long thin spiky toes. The other men mocked him, but Darnert just kept whittling away.
One night the villagers swooped down and attacked the sleeping Saracens. Next morning Darnert was walking around in his strange footwear. Each spike was embellished with something red and shiny wet. On his left clog dripped the heart of the faithless luminous white lily, and on the right the heart of the chief's son.
It's been a custom ever since for Bethmale's young men to give their lady loves at Christmas a pair of spiky-toed clogs decorated with a heart made from golden nail-heads, as well as a spindle and a red distaff. The girls give their men an embroidered wool cardigan and a decorated pouch. I find something rather sinister about a custom that seems to contain a veiled threat to the fiancée.

Bethmale clogs 
Image: pyrenees-decouverte.com

I am particularly looking forward to meeting the Bethmale sabotier – clog-maker, not only because of the legend of the clogs, but because I've never met a sabotier before. I'd love to learn how he became one in the first place. Was his father one before him? How many other sabotiers make similar clogs? How many pairs of the famed long-toed clogs does he make, and how long does it take?
A series of the spindly lanes characteristic of this part of the world lead to an exquisite row of cottages, bordered by pink snapdragons and hollyhocks just on the point of opening. Roses clamber down the railings and around a trough whose pump handle has a frog sitting on it. We pull up outside a stone cottage almost suffocated with hanging baskets, flower boxes, roses, Californian poppies and lilies. A beaming lady emerges from this flowery address and says that yes, the sabotier's premises are right next door. But today being Monday he's at his workshop in Audressein, where we were just half an hour ago. So we re-wend our way there and find the workshop down a side street.
The place is crammed with clogs in various stages of evolution from crude blocks of wood to almost finished footwear. A man wearing earphones is working at a screeching bandsaw, slicing corners off the blocks of wood. He glances at us and returns to his task. An elderly man at the back of the workshop smiles encouragingly, so we ask if he is the famous sabotier. No, he laughs, that's the boss there, indicating the bandsaw man. We stand politely for a long time, waiting for a convenient moment for him to stop. We move from one foot to another, look around the room, and smile at him. He ignores us and keeps slicing at the bits of wood. I take out a card with my name on it and offer it to him. He takes it without looking at it, puts it on a bench, and continues with his task.
I ask the older gentleman whether we can see some long-toed clogs, and he says we are welcome to look round a room at the back of the workshop. This place is stacked from floor to ceiling with racks of half-made clogs, all with disappointingly short toes, apart from one small model that is the sort of clog we've come to see, long-toed and decorated with copper studs. We leave the sabotier still bent over his bandsaw. He's what our neighbour would call a drôle de coco (shady customer).
We stop at the Auberge d'Audressein for hot chocolate. It arrives in a large jug, with a plate of delicate little cakes, and is very nearly as excellent as the chocolate at Biriatou. The waiter is wearing a striped waistcoat and an Hercule Poirot moustache, and says the forecast is for rain on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, although he isn't certain if that is locally, or everywhere. Under the table is a gigantic ginger-biscuit-coloured dog called Princesse. She's a Neapolitan mastiff, even bigger than Dobby. When I sneeze she runs and hides behind the bar.
Between Saint-Girons and Foix the countryside flattens out into wider, more open space and gentle hills. A little grey-haired old lady in a straw hat and checked apron drives a flock of sheep through the village of Rimont, a pretty place perched upon a hillside. The air is scented with freshly-cut hay, and puffy clouds are building over the mountains.
The Château de Foix looks down protectively over the pretty town snuggled against the mountainside.

Château de Foix
Image fr.wikipedia.org

This vast castle was the realm of the powerful 14th century Count of Foix, golden-haired Gaston 'Phoebus', named after the Greek god Apollo. One of the most dazzling, cultured and clever men of his time, he was also politically skilful, and successfully trod the thin line of divided allegiance to both France and England. Awarding himself the title of Prince of Béarn, he asserted his power as a ruler under the swashbuckling motto 'Touch if you dare'. A lover of and authority on music and literature, he was also a passionate huntsman, author of the classic Livre de la Chasse. Fittingly, he died returning from a bear hunt.
Until 1620 the Béarn province belonged to the kingdom of Navarre. Almost two centuries after Phoebus' death, a son was born to the Queen of Navarre. When she died her eighteen-year old son Henri, a Protestant, became King Henri III of Navarre. He married Marguerite de Valois, the daughter of Catherine de Medici and Henri II of France. A week after Henri of Navarre's wedding in Paris, his mother-in-law Catherine launched the St Bartholomew's Day massacre of Protestants. The new bridegroom only escaped death by rapidly converting to Catholicism.
Once he was safely back in Navarre, he reverted to Protestantism. After Catherine de Medici's death seventeen years later, her son François became king of France. He died of a brain abscess after a paltry year on the throne, having married Mary Queen of Scots and laying the foundations for a claim to the throne of Scotland. François' brother Charles took up the reins as Charles IX of France until he died of tuberculosis. Charles was succeeded by his brother Henri, who liked dressing up in ladies' frocks and became the new King of France, Henri III.
King Henri III of France and King Henri III of Navarre fought each other in the War of Religion. Another powerful Henri – the Catholic Duke of Guise, appeared on the scene, supporting the French King Henri in his fight against King Henri of Navarre. But the Duke of Guise became too powerful and so Henri of France had him assassinated. The two remaining Henris then formed an alliance, and when French Henri was fatally wounded by a mad monk, he named Navarre Henri as his heir. Thus Henri III of Navarre became also Henri IV of France.

Henri III of Navarre, Henri IV of France
Image: fr.wikipedia.org

He'd have to re-become a Catholic, though, to avoid strife, but as he is supposed to have said, "Paris is well worth a Mass." His see-saw religious convictions upset the Protestants, but he pacified them by the creation of the Edict of Nantes, which gave them the freedom to worship in their own way.
He wasn't entirely satisfied with his existing wife Marguerite. He got rid of her and took on a new one, Marie de Medici, his ex-mother-in-law's cousin. Marie is credited with introducing into France the recipe for puff pastry, which would lead to the birth of the croissant, and Henri is remembered for saying there should be a chicken in every peasant's pot on Sundays.
Marie was crowned Queen of France on 13th May, 1610. The following day Henri was stabbed to death by a religious maniac, and Marie became Regent of France for their eight-year-old son Louis. He would become Louis XIII and would unite France and the Béarn. It was of those enthralling and blood-thirsty periods in French history which tend to sidetrack me every so often.

The above passage is an extract from "Travels with Tinkerbelle - 6,000 Miles Around France in a Mechanical Wreck"


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